What Can Be Done About Gun Violence?

ATF director Steven Dettelbach discusses background checks, assault weapon bans, and an “overwhelming problem.” 

Steven Dettelbach (right) with historian Caroline Light (left) | screenshot by harvard magazine

During a Harvard discussion on gun violence earlier this week, Steven Dettelbach, J.D. ’91, director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), began by laying out the stakes. He described the “parade of tragedy and loss” that kills 120 Americans every day, and the “macabre record” of mass shootings that keeps rising. So far in 2023, the United States has seen more than 560 mass shootings, defined as incidents in which at least four people are shot or killed. (The current record is 688, set in 2021, according to the Gun Violence Archive.) Gun violence is now the number one cause of death for children in the United States. “The baseline that we’re setting here,” he said, is “tremendously troubling.” 

Dettelbach spoke at the Harvard Kennedy School Monday evening with historian Caroline Light, director and senior lecturer in undergraduate studies of women, sexuality, and gender. Light’s 2017 book Stand Your Ground: A History of America’s Love Affair with Lethal Self Defense examined the roots of the laws that have increasingly enshrined a selective right to kill. 

The discussion came less than a week after the mass shooting in Lewiston, Maine, in which a gunman opened fire at a restaurant and a bowling alley, killing 18 people and wounding more than a dozen others. “A horrific event,” said Dettelbach. He reminded the audience that just hours before the massacre, the U.S. Senate had approved an amendment that would scale back background check requirements for some veterans and military service members with mental health issues. (The Lewiston shooter, Robert Card, had served in the Army Reserves, and he is one of a disproportionate number of mass-shooting perpetrators with military backgrounds.) Dettelbach also reminded the audience about what’s happened since the Lewiston shooting: “a pounding, relentless toll of firearms deaths,” including mass shootings in Texas, Florida, Indianapolis, and Chicago, in which dozens were injured and at least seven died. In addition, Dettelbach said, 120 people die from firearms daily. “Every day, there are somewhere between six and seven Lewistons that occur, mostly anonymously.”

Dettelbach pointed to exacerbating elements in the crisis, including the rising number of firearms produced and advances in technology that make guns more lethal and easier to acquire. “But the number one threat to our public safety,” he said, is “acceptance and apathy.” Pushing back on the idea that gun violence has always been an omnipresent threat in American culture and life, he added, “It is not part of our national story or the founders’ vision that people can’t sit on their porches in neighborhoods all over this country without being afraid of being shot. It is not part of who we are as a people that you can’t go to a kid’s bowling night, or to a rock concert, or to church, or to temple, or to a mosque to pray without wondering if you’re going to be a victim. It’s not part of the history of our country that on the first nice day of spring, you can’t go to a park without worrying about these things.” 

Later, in response to an audience question about the items on his “wish list,” Dettelbach voiced support for universal background checks for firearms sales, which large majorities of Americans consistently favor. “I think that it would be helpful if we had universal background checks in this country,” he said. “I think that’s something that seems to make some sense.” He also said he’d like to revive the federal prohibition on assault weapons, which expired in 2004: “I agree that we ought to consider and actually reinstate a ban on certain types of assault weapons.”

Supreme Court rulings in recent years have expanded gun rights by rolling back restrictions in both state and federal laws. Next week, it will hear oral arguments in United States v. Rahimi, a case that could decide the constitutionality of a federal law that prohibits people with domestic violence restraining orders from owning firearms. The case may also test the extent to which restrictions can be placed on the Second Amendment, given the Supreme Court’s recent precedents. 

A former U.S. attorney for the northern district of Ohio, Dettelbach was appointed to lead the ATF in 2022. Long opposed by Republican legislators and gun rights activists, the bureau has been hobbled in recent years by mistakes and controversies (most famously the Fast and Furious sting operation, which allowed guns to be sold to illegal straw buyers in hopes of tracing them to Mexican cartel leaders). Until Dettelbach’s confirmation, the ATF had been without a permanent director for seven years.  

During Monday’s conversation, he described the ATF’s use of data, including a database called the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network (NIBIN), which allows officials to “follow” guns associated with crimes and criminal investigations. Another database, the eTrace Network, tracks guns used in crimes, although Congressional limits prohibiting the bureau from keeping a firearms “registry” mean that the database is not searchable, Dettelbach said. “And so, every time there’s a trace run, it is done literally by a person going through records that are scanned in, looking at them one by one, or running into the boxes and boxes and boxes of records we keep.” The ATF’s goal, he said, is to get better—“and we are getting better”—at identifying who is likely to become a shooter, and then working to stop, “or at least slow down” the flow of guns to those would-be shooters. “If we don’t talk at all about the way that those people are so easily becoming armed with very serious weaponry, despite the fact that they’re not allowed to be, we’re not going to get anywhere.” 

Light asked him about the “cruel irony” of gun sales spiking after mass shootings, despite strong evidence that more guns in civilian hands leads to more deaths. “How do you make sense of that?” she said. 

It’s hard, Dettelbach said. He talked about how the “overwhelming” nature of the problem leads people to give up, and about how, in the national conversation about guns, “The temperature is way too high to actually get things done.” A third factor, he said, is what he called a loss of respect—for one another, but also for firearms themselves, by the very people who claim a right to own them. “People who grow up in communities with a lot of guns have told me … you never give a gun to a stranger, right? And so why would you let somebody buy a firearm without passing a simple background check?” He criticized gun owners who leave their weapons unsecured in their homes or their unlocked cars. From 2017 to 2021, he said, more than one million guns were stolen from individual owners. It’s important, he said, to “revive this idea of both respecting rights, but respecting the responsibility that comes with those rights.” 

Read more articles by: Lydialyle Gibson

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